Articles by Vanessa Houk

Passionate about social and economic justice, Vanessa Houk is dedicated to chronicling the struggles of labor and civil rights. Based in Ashland, she is the editor-in-chief of the Rogue Valley Community Press.


Please support our struggle for secure housing

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The problem of homelessness

In some ways organizing public community meals for the homeless is a little like being homeless, your presence makes some people feel uncomfortable and eventually you’ll be pressured to move on.

Since May 6th, we’ve served about 400 meals in Railroad Park when we decided to go weekly with our Friday Community Peace Meal. That’s an average of 50 per week in what I like to think of as “The Crock-pot Brigade” as we demonstrate love in action. It’s an all volunteer effort and dozens of volunteers help make it happen.

It’s a spin off of a monthly meal that began in November 2015 when our community came together to provide hot food, warm clothing and other basic necessities during the coldest months of the year. Part homeless outreach, part community building, these meals are preceded by a talking circle facilitated by the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission. An hour before the meal, we form a circle and share our thoughts on ways we can create a more peaceful culture. Something amazing happens when we slow down and listen to each other, friendships form and conversations begin. Every week I get to witness compassion and courage as we connect through words and language.

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Community meals go WE-ekly


If you pass by Railroad Park on a Friday afternoon you’ll find more than a grassy field and a children’s play area; a weekly community meal that is part homeless outreach and part community building. Wellness for Everyone (WE) began as a grassroots group in November 2015 when a woman asked a simple question in a Facebook group, could she bring a crock pot into Lithia Park and feed homeless people? Many people chimed in and Ana Witt donated $200 (her family budget for Thanksgiving) to rent Pioneer Hall. Dozens of people brought food and clothing and about 60 people enjoyed a feast. This was repeated in December and WE were on our way to feeding our community.
Now there are additional meals being served in our community and as the Friday meal in the park has grown, it has a new identity, Community Peace Meals.
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KEY to solving homelessness


Over the course of one night in January 2015, volunteers spread out across Jackson County and counted homeless people. They counted 1,358 men, women and children who are homeless in our community. Every year HUD (Housing and Urban Development) requires counties across the nation to count homeless people who are staying in shelters and every two years they require a count of both sheltered and unsheltered people; of course that number is an estimate as it’s believed that the numbers are actually much higher, but it’s an idea of how many people around us are sleeping on the streets.

1,358. Think about that for a minute. Right here, right at your own feet.

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Say it isn’t so, Elmo. Please say it isn’t so.


I hear that you and the gang recently moved away from PBS to bigger and shinier digs at HBO. Sesame Street lived on Public Broadcasting for the last forty-six years, the majority of my life. In fact, I was six months old when you started out, I am part of the first wave of human beings who became better people, thanks to the lessons you cultivated. You taught me how to read, share and think. I owe you big props for that, I do, but watching you become privatized is a lot like how it felt when the home I grew up in was put up for sale.

I thought you would always be there, right where I left you.

My kids grew up watching Sesame Street in between episodes of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Arthur. As a young mom, those hours were sometimes the only bit of quiet that I could coax out of the day and in turn your lessons were carried along by another generation. I felt good about that.

HBO’s new episodes debuted  and those new 30 minute episodes will eventually find their way to the airways on PBS, later this fall. Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the show, has been chugging along at a deficit after sales of children’s DVD’s and toys that bear the images of the beloved show have dropped over the last five years. Privatization, as it often is packaged, is supposed to be Sesame Street’s saving grace. Forgive me if I sound like the kid having a tantrum when I say this isn’t good enough. These are not the values that this show taught, the sheer goodness of showing what can happen when people work together. Sesame Workshop didn’t give the public a chance to save it, before it was sold to the highest bidder.

“I am so excited for kids to explore our updated neighborhood and discover where their favorite characters live,” said Carol-Lynn Parente, Executive Producer, Sesame Street. “Sesame Street has always been the ideal play date for preschoolers; now that play date is focused on topics and themes that are very engaging to kids, with our signature educational messages embedded into laughter and music.”

What they aren’t talking about is how the play date’s been moved to a gated community and millions of kids aren’t going to be invited through the front gate.

The new season will offer 35 half hour episodes. A traditional season of Sesame Street is 24 one hour episodes.

I wonder what the Count would say about that.

Ashland community group takes on hunger one meal at a time


WE (Wellness for Everyone) began with a post on Facebook where Amy Reer asked if it would be possible to feed some homeless people, or would the city shut down such an action. Many people responded and it quickly grew into an action where Pioneer Hall was rented for several hours on an afternoon in late November 2015. Dozens of volunteers worked together to prepare food, donate warm clothing and about 60 people were served a hot, nutritious meal.

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Fix-It: The Health Care Tipping Point


Unless you’re part of the 1%, the problems surrounding our healthcare system are felt by everyone. CEO Richard Master brings a new voice to the table for healthcare reform with his documentary “Fix it: Healthcare at the Tipping Point”. Masters owns a picture frames company called MCS Industries Inc out of Pennsylvania. His company is worth $200 million annually and he recognizes that the business world needs to take on the healthcare system that is out of control.

“My company now pays $1.5 million a year to provide access to healthcare for our workers and their dependents,” Master  said. “When I investigated where all the money goes, I was shocked.”

About ⅓ of every dollar spent on health care is eaten up by administrative costs. Meanwhile 1.4 million Americans file bankruptcy each year due to medical bills. About ¼ of Americans don’t get the health care they need in our current system of rationed care.

“As a result of this waste and inefficiency, our total spending on health care soared above $3 trillion in 2014. More than 17 percent of our national GDP is now eaten up by health care costs, far more than any other country.”

‘Fix It’ investigates health care reform from the place of the boardroom rather than the picket line. It’s a look at how the healthcare industry squelches business and the jobs that could grow out of it, if businesses paid less on health care, while making a point that it’s a public good to have access to that care in the first place.

Master spoke about how much of their company’s profits were eaten up by the extreme costs of providing healthcare for employees and their dependants. “We had to watch every penny of overhead. Every penny, every half penny on this product. And the one area that was so confounding was healthcare costs,” he said.

This film examines how our multi payer system of healthcare costs more and provides much less than a single payer system could. Some of the nation’s leading health care policy makers are interviewed in the film including Dr. Don Berwick, former administrator of the Center for Medicaid and Medicaid Services and Dr. Theodore Marmor, Professor Emeritus, Public Policy at Yale University as well as a host of other doctors, nurses and medical specialists.

Would you like a free DVD copy of “Fix it– Health Care Beyond the Tipping Point”? If you are willing to host a screening of the film, you can get a free copy of the film at



Low income housing crisis impacts the most vulnerable

It might be true that the fastest path out of homelessness is to find yourself diagnosed with stage IV cancer, as my friend Greg’s recent experience is teaching us. Greg is a lot like many people I’ve known who are homeless; he’d been stuck there for years. He picked up odd jobs here and there whenever he could, but nothing that ever amounted to enough to get back on his feet. The jobs that he could get often paid less than minimum wage and involved physical labor. Right around the time Greg was diagnosed, the weather turned and temperatures were dropping below freezing. The Ashland Community Resource Center jumped in and helped him secure housing for the next six months.

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The etiquette of poverty

The food bank opens at 9:30. If you arrive close to that time, it’s likely that you’ll be 14th or 15th in line, which means that you won’t finish until noon. If you arrive at least a half hour early, you’ll probably be 5th or 6th and you’ll be finished by about 10:45. You’re an early arriver at nearly everything anyway. Being on time feels like being late.

It’s 9:00 when you arrive, park your twenty five year old car and get in line. You stand behind an older man whose weathered face tells a thing or two about a rugged life. He sits on top of a hard plastic box which does not look comfortable. A younger man stands next to him talking about his cell phone bill. Directly in front of them are five women. One has dark hair and stands to the side, alone. Four of them speak in animated, singsong Spanish and their gossip and laughter fill the parking lot. Several shopping bags are lined up in front of the door. There’s less than a half hour to wait. It’s cold.

There’s someone in the bushes near the edge of the building. At first you think it must be a homeless person, but it turns out to be a plumber. Looks like he’s fixing something for the church.

A young man arrives and takes his place in line behind you. He’s wearing a thick winter coat and gloves and heaves a heavy backpack from his shoulders onto the ground next to him. You wonder if he slept outside last night and think about how cold it is.

One of the women standing in front of the door moves and you see there’s a note posted. It says the food bank’s hours have changed, effective a week ago today and they won’t open until 10. It’s 9:15. There’s not enough gas in the car to drive home and back and if you did that you’d lose your place in line and have to wait longer throughout the morning. Better to stay put and wait it out since you’ve already invested some time in this task.

A woman with a big, brown, fluffy dog approaches the line. The dog is on a leash, but he gravitates towards the man behind you and the man reaches his hand out to offer a pat. The dog moves back nervously, but the lady says something and the dog moves his snout towards the young man’s hand. “He’s a little nervous,” he says to the woman. “He’s not feeling well,” she says and goes on to explain that she’s taking him to the vet today. The young man doesn’t say anything, but he seems comforted by the dog. The woman is dressed neatly and she carries an expensive looking handbag. A few minutes pass. The woman walks away.

“Guess she’s getting her fill of “po folk,” the man in front of you says, rich laughter chasing his words.
“Must be,” you say.

Someone behind you is coughing.

Other conversations begin and end at will. If you had to identify a regular theme it would be that here, folks look out for one another. Outside of the food bank line it seems that everyone is competing with each other, but here there is a rare sense of fellowship. Conversations revolve around survival and information is shared openly. Out here in the cold, advice is given.

The old man in front of you stands up and stretches. He pulls a cigarette from his pocket and steps out of line to smoke.

It’s getting harder to ignore the cold. You switch your weight to the other leg and stuff your hands further inside your pockets. You try to think of warm things. There are a few trees near you and staring at them makes you remember how it felt to stand here during the summer when nearby fires made the air thick with smoke.

You’re thinking about a day when a tiny woman in her sixties disclosed that she needed to find housing. “Go talk to Sue over at the HUD apartments on Clay,” another woman told her. “Tell her Ginger sent you. She can help you fill out the paperwork and get on the list.”

When you’re poor, you stand in a lot of lines and your name gets put on a lot of lists. Neither of those activities seem to bring you any closer to the border that edges a person out of poverty. You wonder what happened to that woman? Where is she living right now?

Two more people cough. You think about vitamin C.

It’s 9:30 now. Shiny cars are parked in the church parking lot and you know they were driven by volunteers who are inside the building. The food bank relies on church members who come in and distribute food every Wednesday. You think about the line of folded metal chairs that are on the other side of the door and the heat that’s filling that room. The doors will not open until 10.

The woman with the dog is back. She stands near the edge of the building, watching people in line. The dog sits on the ground and scratches. Towards the end of the line, a boy is wailing. The woman watches the little boy, silently. A few more minutes pass.

The boy spots the dog and waddles towards them. “Ddddd-ruff,” he says joyfully.

The woman leads the dog away from the boy. “Guess it’s time to put you in the truck,” she tells the dog firmly. She walks past the boy and he is dizzy with excitement over the sighting of a big, brown, fluffy dog in his midst. Several people in line smile at his contagious joy. A young woman takes the boy’s hand and they stand together, waiting.

9:45. Getting close now.

The old man has finished his cigarette and sits back down on the crate. The younger man continues to fiddle with his phone. The woman in front of them is reading a book. The four women continue to talk, gossip and laugh. Every few minutes one of them moves and peers into the window at the clock that hangs inside.
You stare at the azalea bushes in front of the church and leaves that are covered with ice. Still 10 minutes to go.

The dog woman returns, only without a dog this time. She walks to the front of the line and picks up a shopping bag as to announce that she is in her rightful place at the head of the line.

The little boy laughs.

The woman in front of the old man closes her book. “Wish they would open up already,” she tells the old man. “Yup,” he replies.
More people arrive and the line is filling out. You watch the clock.

The door opens and a middle aged man stands there holding out a pile of numbered cards. “Whose number one?”
The line files in until it’s just the old man and what turns out to be his son. And then, “Number six.”

You take the card and thank him, but he’s already moved on to the man behind you. You step through the door into the warm sanctuary.

Community struggles with homelessness conversation


At a recent “listening session” Mayor Stromberg and city councilor Stef Seffinger hosted, Cynthia Rider, Executive Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a board member of the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said she lives in fear of homeless people. “I have a teenage daughter and walking through downtown with her, she is often sexually harassed, even when I am with her. And she is surprised that I am upset, because she says that it happens 4-5 times every day. She is growing up in a community that will tolerate constant harassment of young women.”


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